Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Translate. What's the Worst That Could Happen?
I'm terrible at maths. If anyone says "My brain is stuck, what's so and so minus 12?" I feel my stomach hit the floor and my brain turn to mush as I struggle to find a way to escape the trap without looking as stupid as maths makes me feel. I'm told this might be a Pavlovian response to my maths teachers of youth whose technique involved drilling times tables into our heads and stalking the classroom with a ruler to crack across your palm when you got it wrong. Being bad at math meant you were automatically stupid, and no matter how hard I tried, the moment I saw the numbers on a test paper, I flew into a panic and the numbers began to swim infront of my eyes.
It still happens. That horrified feeling of realising you don't know what the hell it is the symbols mean, though some part of you knows that if only you could calm yourself down, you might be able to make some sense of the puzzle before you.
I had that same horrified feeling this morning when I went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs downtown in Athens to get my birth certficate translated. To get to this stage, I had to shell out EUR 80 for an express copy of a new birth certificate in the UK, delivered to my parents' house, and then my mum had to go to Milton Keynes for the Apostille stamp [add another EUR 35] and post it back to me Special Delivery which took nearly 10 days to arrive because of the Easter post backlog.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a really depressing place, a shabby building screaming out for a new coat of paint and a something to get rid of the Screw You Foreigners atmosphere of the place. I feel sorry for anyone who has to go there, I even feel sorry for myself. We foreigners milled around outside like lost cattle till the gates opened before 9 am. This was my first time dealing all alone with a Greek institution and I was really nervous. I felt like I was groping about in the dark as I followed the crowd through the gates and made my way to the 2nd floor.
When I got to the office that deals with Greek and English translations, I discovered that all the tables on the walls, on the booths and anything helpful or otherwise instructional was in Greek. And official, technical Greek. So there I was without my dictionary, staring around wild-eyed and panic-stricken, knowing if I could just calm down I might be able to understand the tables. It's just that I was so wrong-footed at finding everything in Greek that my mind went blank.
You see, here's my really radical line of thought and what I expected to find: the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that deals with, you know, foreigners, would surely have instructions in one or two languages other than Greek. But obviously that's way too crazy a thought for even the Ministry's employees to attempt. Make life a little easier for foreigners in Greece? Are you joking?? It's that kind of crazy thinking that leads to COMMUNISM, Missy!
Eventually after several moments of panic, I worked out what I had to do by following the crowd. I filled in a short form which, mercy me, had instructions in English too, and handed it over with the other papers and EUR 12 for an express translation which will take one week. Express? Oh well. Handing over my papers, the money and getting a receipt took mere seconds, but those moments of cluelessness that preceded have no doubt added some more hairs to my grey streak.
Now I can see the benefit of forcing people to do things in the native language. I've met people in the UK with so little English, and some who have been in the UK 25+ years and can speak not a word of English, because the system makes it too easy to get away with. This hinders integration.
But guys, really. I'm trying to integrate. I live here, I spend my worthless GBPs converted to Euros here, I'm getting married (if you'll let me) and maybe I'll be having little Greek babies too. I don't even hang out with expats, that's how hard I'm trying to integrate. You don't have to be so scared of me not learning Greek so as not to translate anything!
Looking on the bright side, if nothing else I am learning new words throughout this ordeal of paperwork. My latest acquisition is sfragida, the Greek for stamp, a word which I always get stuck prononoucing - sffff sffffff. This was learnt when describing my Apostille stamp nightmare to a family friend we had gone to visit, and it turns out she was having the same problem trying to process her British-born grandaughter's birth certificate in Athens. And wasn't I delighted to be in a position to advise a Greek on how to extract ones self from red tape!